The night sky is a wonderful sight. It’s one thing that everyone can appreciate, and can stand its own against the most fantastic app, movie, or book that cares to distract. All you need is a blanket, a clear night, some snacks, and maybe someone special to share the experience with. There is no more relaxing, peaceful, and calming experience than doing the same things that humans have done for untold generations: looking at the stars and thinking.
What Do You Need?
Short answer: nothing. Dress appropriately for the weather (you probably won’t be moving around very much and will be sitting or lying on the cold ground). If you have glasses or contacts—especially if you’re nearsighted—you should bring those too. That being said, there are some things that can possibly improve your viewing experience:
- A red flashlight can help you see without destroying your night vision (more on that later)
- A blanket or towel you can lie down (it will keep you warmer and stop you from getting dirty)
- Snacks are, presumably, self-explanatory
- Binoculars or a telescope are a good option for people who want to see more stars than the paultry 9000 visible without artificial aids, or for resolving the planets
- A starchart (most useful with the addition of a red flashlight), or a starchart app on your phone (especially one that has a red filter option)
- A green laser pointer to point out interesting objects to your friends (look up the laws around using lasers outdoors; don’t shine them at people, animals, or vehicles; don’t use them near an airport; and absolutely do not shine them anywhere near a plane)
Where Do I Go?
There are a number of things to consider when planning your nighttime voyage. For starters, the most important thing to consider is darkness. Light pollution is an ever-growing problem; it can be quite difficult to find a location that is dark enough to see the faintest stars. It would be wonderful if we could all go to Bruce National Park, which is designated a Dark Sky Preserve, and therefore has all sorts of light-reducing initiatives like private citizens reducing their external lights and low light-pollution road lamps. However, even within, say, Waterloo there are a couple really nice places for stargazing.
In general, if you can’t drive out to the middle of the countryside, your goals should be getting away from bright lights and, in particular, lights that are directly in your line of sight. Human eyes can adjust spectacularly over time to limited light levels. However, they are also super-attuned to the danger that bright lights can cause to eyes with dilated pupils. As a result, a single glance from a bright light can bring your dark-vision back to zero. Fortunately, this response is not triggered by red light, hence the emphasis or red flashlights or phone filters.
If you’re looking for a particular place to go stargazing, Columbia Lake is a nice one. It’s very close to campus, especially the residences. Going to the west side of the lake (off of Westminster) can help you get away from the bright lights of the CIF football field. However, this is also a very isolated area. If you’re at all nervous about being out alone in the dark, bring a friend or try somewhere less intimidating.
A much more comfortable place is the V1 Green. It gets surprisingly dark at night, especially if you put your back to the SLC. At the same time, it’s hardly isolated at all. You’re a quick jog to all the facilities of International News, Turnkey, or V1. If you’re a people-watcher type of person, this location has an added benefit: conversations carry at night so you can eavesdrop on pretty much anyone walking from SLC to the residences.
The parking lot at King and Columbia (northeast corner) is a personal favourite of mine, but that’s more to do with its close location to me than its quality (which is fairly poor). You shouldn’t bus across town to check it out; this location is more to encourage you to check out your local park, school playground, or parking lot to see how well it looks.
When Do I Go?
The most important thing to consider is if it’s cloudy. You won’t see much with full clouds, although it might still give you some time to rest and reflect. Partial cloud isn’t damning, but it can hamper viewing significantly: reflections of city lights from the clouds can be pretty intense and, if the moon is out, clouds may be backlit, making the problem even worse. Speaking of the moon, it can be a fascinating object to study, but also extremely annoying if you’re looking for other things. “Guided by the light of the moon” is not a metaphor; a full moon on a clear night can cast visible and prominent shadows. The last, probably least important, thing to consider is that cold, dry, windless nights will yield better viewing because there will be less atmospheric noise.
What Should I Look For?
There are so many fascinating things filling the night sky, all you have to do is look. The classic is, of course, the constellations. There 88 “official” constellations that the International Astronomy Union (IAU) recognizes, but each culture and time period has had its own set, most accompanied by stories of why that shape appears in the sky. A star chart can be used to help you locate these shapes (especially the 88 IAU ones). One thing everyone knows about constellations is that they are essentially random, figments of the human imagination. While, strictly, this is true, I beg to differ on the randomness. For instance, all the stars of the Big Dipper seems to always appear before most other stars. Similarly, at least at the light levels I’m used to viewing at, the hunter Orion seems to be coherent and isolated, without too much noise from other bright stars that the ancient astronomers chose to ignore.
A second thing to look for are the planets. When you look at a model of the solar system, the planets are all shown in a single plane orbiting the sun. Looking up at the night sky, you can see the proof of that; if there is more than one planet in the sky, they will all lie on a particular straight line. This line, called the ecliptic, will also pass through the sun (or, more likely, the quickly-fading sunset) and will also pass fairly close to the moon. It takes some practice (and guesswork) to correctly identify the planets, but it’s a fun challenge to try. You can check your guesses with your starchart app or when you get home.
Satellites are another thing you can spot to entertain yourself. They move in distinctly straight, undeviating lines and are most easily seen for a few hours after sunset or before sunrise. Many planes will probably be misidentified as satellites at first. The two clues are regular flashing lights or, believe it or not, the sound of the plane carried down to you.
The final, to my mind most spectacular, thing to look for in the night sky are meteors or “shooting stars”. These are rare occurrences—not to be expected at every viewing session—where a large piece of debris from outer space enters the atmosphere, leaving behind a faint green trail for a fraction of a second. It happens so quickly that you won’t be able to shout it out to any fellow stargazers, and its rarity and brevity makes it seem really special. That being said, if you really want to see a meteor, keep an eye on a stargazing podcast, website, magazine, or calendar to catch spectacular meteor showers, when rate can sometimes reach a staggering 60 sightings per hour.